The Boy Who Cried Rodent Carcinogen

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The principle that "the dose makes the poison" in other words, that almost any substance can be toxic at high levels has been lost on Californians.

That is why, as required by a 16-year-old referendum proposition, signs outside most commercial establishments proclaim that the state of California has determined that patrons of these businesses may be exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer or birth defects. Not that in the overwhelming majority of cases there's any hint of risk greater than, say, the household cleaners in your home, but the law requires a warning about any product that contains even tiny amounts of a chemical that, at high doses, can cause cancer in lab animals.

Finally, this ridiculous law is being challenged. The American Council on Science and Health, which promotes science as the basis for public policy, has filed a suit to illustrate the absurdity of California's Proposition 65, as it is commonly known. The organization, taking advantage of a provision in Proposition 65 that permits anyone to bring a "bounty hunter" suit in the "public interest," has filed the statutory 60-day notice with the attorney general and the defendant.

Ah, yes, the defendant: scandalous Whole Foods Markets, which, as alleged in the suit, has failed to warn the public about the presence of acrylamide, a chemical found on California's list of chemicals known to cause cancer and reproductive toxic effects. Acrylamide is present in minuscule amounts in the organic whole-wheat bread that is baked and sold by the defendant.

Truth to tell, the public interest here being pursued by the council is not the protection of consumers from a cancer-causing agent or from the predations of Whole Foods.

We know, as observed by eminent UC Berkeley toxicologists Bruce Ames and Lois Gold, "no human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens." The company's organic whole-wheat bread is no more a health threat than is the infinitesimal amount of radioactive potassium that is a ubiquitous constituent of glass bottles and window panes.

Rather, the council reckons that the public interest is best served by the principle that laws should be based on sound science and not unfounded, ideologically driven fears.

The Whole Foods Market chain is the model defendant because it prides itself on providing the ultimate in tasty, healthful foods that contain no synthetic chemicals. And also, I dare to hope, because it is so nauseatingly sanctimonious and wrong about avoiding the fruits of new technology such as foods from genetically improved plants.

So, although it "protects" customers from so-called Frankenfoods, Whole Foods sells organic breads made from organic, nonbrominated, unbleached flour that inevitably contain acrylamide, a naturally occurring rodent carcinogen.

What most people don't realize, however, is that any kind of bread contains naturally occurring rodent carcinogens, such as furfural. And so do most other foods, organic or not. Some, like edible mushrooms, Roquefort cheese and barbecued red meat, have relatively high levels of such compounds.

Yet because the tests that measure whether a chemical is a rodent carcinogen typically employ very high doses administered over the animals' lifetime (and also because many animals have unique susceptibilities), the results should not be directly extrapolated to humans.

Why bread in the test case? Why not French fries, for example, which have higher levels of acrylamide than bread? For one thing, risk is proportional both to the intrinsic toxicity of a harmful substance and the level of people's exposure, and even though the level in French fries is higher than that in bread, more people are exposed to bread (that is, more consume bread) than to French fries. Thus the higher probable exposure from bread would make it more of a risk--if it were a risk at all.

Proposition 65 simply ignores the reality that we live in a sea of chemicals whose dose and potential hazard fluctuate widely. The ubiquity of the "warning" signs about dangerous chemicals is the legal equivalent of "the boy who cried wolf."